Will Smith returned to awards season festivities Wednesday evening, taking the stage to accept the Beacon Award at the African American Film Critics Association Awards. The speech marked Smith’s first in-person speech at an awards ceremony since his controversy at the 2022 Oscars, in which the actor slapped Chris Rock onstage.
Smith’s “Emancipation” costar Charmaine Bingwa and AAFCA cofounder Gil L. Robertson introduced Smith and Antoine Fuqua, the historical drama’s director, early in the evening’s ceremony. After Fuqua’s minute-long thanks to AAFCA, Apple TV+ and the film’s cast and crew, Smith took the microphone to recount the production of the film.
“‘Emancipation’ was the individual most difficult film of my entire career. It was all outdoors, that is true,” Smith joked, earning laughs from the crowd.
“It was the second day of shooting and 110 degrees… I was in a scene with one of the white actors. The actor decided to ad lib. So we’re doing the scene. I did my line. He did his line. And then — ad lib — he spit in the middle of my chest,” Smith said as the crowd groaned. “Rhe actor felt that the ad lib had gone well. So we do take two. I do my line. He does his line — and spits in the middle of my chest again… In the distance, I hear a voice. And Antoine says, ‘Hey, let’s do a take without the spit.’ And in that moment, I knew that God was real.”
“I want to thank Gil and AAFCA. I want to thank all of you in this room for doing what you do, keeping our stories alive. I want to thank Apple, because the budget was one thing. And then the budget was another thing. And then the budget was another thing. And Apple never flinched,” Smith said. “It was the first time I had heard from a studio that the story was more important than how much it costs to get it done… They make iPhones. They can do it.”
Before the award show, Bingwa told Variety at the red carpet that Smith went out of his way to show his appreciation for “Emancipation” actors who were filming an especially difficult scene. “There was a scene where the people had to lay dead in a tunnel… And Will just said, ‘You guys are doing a fantastic job. I know this is really tough.’ And he gave them all an extra $1,000 out of his own pocket,” Bingwa said, adding, “He’s just a great guy.”
Bingwa also joked that Smith had to wash her feet repeatedly to film the movie’s opening scene. “We always laugh about the fact that he had to wash my feet several times in that opening scene. It’s a great foot massage,” she said.
AAFCA is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, honoring films such as “The Woman King,” “The Inspection,” “Nanny” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Other special honorees Wednesday evening included “Till,” for the Impact Award; “Nope” composer Michael Abels for the Innovator Award; “Wakanda Forever” production designer Hannah Beachler, for the Building Change Award presented by Lowes; and “Wakanda Forever” producer Nate Moore, for the Ashley Boone Award.